Feb 25, 2019
It has been 10 years now, since I lead SEALs into combat. Ten years since utter clarity.
Yes you did hear that correctly. Combat to great leaders is simple and clear. Taking SEALs into combat was for me a brilliant culmination of 20 years in the SEAL teams.
Combat leadership as I reflect on it had five elements to it. They will not be what you expect to hear. The movies and politicians and people who have never been there simple don’t know. Often I do realize there are soldiers and sailors and marines and Airman who never got in alignment with the five elements.
In movies, and I can hardly even watch combat movies because they are not accurate at all, comparing movies to real combat is like comparing Apples to Dogs. And, the people who have never seen real combat simply live in another world of confusion and excitement mixed with questions that have no answers.
Leading SEALs in combat is now and even was than an honor I can hardly describe. SEALs are the last homogenous group left. Homogenous in the fact they all go through the same unfiltered training; homogenous in the first principle of team work which is diverse thoughts and opinions that culminate in one singular action; and homogenous in the fact that they all simply don’t give a shit what other people say about them. They are all more committed to each other than they are pretty much any thing else in the world.
So that is the first unexpected element of combat leadership; the deep unrelenting love and connection and draw each SEAL has for his platoon and other SEALs. With out that key element as a combat leader, you will just be a bus driver.
The second element to combat leadership is commitment prior to knowing how. What do I mean by that? Let me explain, the reality and the biggest differentiator of the wolf and the sheep but in the military and in the business sector is the wolf is already committed. And the Sheep is waiting to be told. In the SEALs and in combat, I was already committed to getting to it. You never as a combat leader receive a mission that is solvable. Each mission you receive has no solution, or worse, each mission looks like everyone is going to die. But here is the second most important thing in combat leadership: Commitment is the only thing that will solve the unsolvable. SEALs from the first day of training until the die or retire or quit are constantly faced with problems that have no solution. They are used to remaining committed in order to solve the problems.
I was shocked in the civilian world and in business the opposite is the norm. Everyone wants the solution before they commit. They work on problems from the point of view of lack on commitment and the process exhausts them and they never commit. Sad, but true.
The Third element of combat leadership is high level of fitness. This element is reinforced every single day. This fitness and constant athleticism may actually be the lynch-pin to success in combat. I often think without this element the other factors cannot work. Point blank in your face physically tough and constantly working out is so important to being successful in high risk stressful environments. It is not written down anywhere, often this high level fitness isn’t even talked about, but if you aren’t visibly doing it the team will make you do it. Oddly enough no one in the combat teams cares how you emotionally feel about staying fit. They only care that you are capable to carrying your load and enduring tough times, so that they don’t have to carry you through at the risk of the mission and their lives. So you stay fit as a matter of principle. Or you pay.
The forth element is trade craft expertise. In other words, to be effective as a combat leader you have to ensure and enforce that your team constantly improves their skills. What do I mean by that? Here is the reality of leading men in combat: You don’t lead them. Wait, what? That is right you don’t lead highly trained, highly fit, committed people into combat. You as a leader simply keep them all focused in one direction for short periods of time, usually the length of the mission. That is the truth. They don’t follow you, these men align with you because they know you will put them in the area that allows them to make use of the skills they bring to the table. It is that simple. If you don’t constantly show them that you can manage the chaos and put them into the right place and area where they can do their thing they will just not unite. Know your men and do for them what they require, anything else is simply a waste of your life and their life.
The fifth element is what most expect. I call it fusion. You as a combat leader have to fuse together all moving parts into a plan of action that even a 13 year old can execute. And that is not easy. You have to deal with the Egos of the top brass or other entities which I call jello. You have to then create and control a time line that is precise. And trust me controlling Time is harder than dealing with ego. I call time AIR. Then you have to fuse your time line with the rehearsal of the actions of others. I call it the Machine. Wolves hate to rehearse and they hate you for making them do it. Yet if you don’t men die prematurely and missions fail when they don’t have to fail. The final point of fusion and the final point of combat leadership is you have to fuse and be ok with killing and death. I call this emotional mastery. Combat is the rude awakening to killing and death. Combat is mean, situations in combat are so staggeringly brutal you will shut down if you haven’t made your peace with killing and dying. You leave on each mission having already considered your death and those of your team and considered the enemy will die at your hands.
You must fuse all these factors: You must fuse Jello, with Air, with the Machine, with Your Emotions. And you must go anyway.
Combat leadership is this:
Deep love and connection to your team
Commit before there is a solution
Relentless physical capability
Constant trade craft mastery
And Fusing elements not meant to exist together.
And in the final consideration you must bring everyone home.